In June of 1997, I stood in the kitchen making dinner for my son Patrick and my nephew Nick. Nick had just arrived from St. Louis to spend the summer. I watched the two of them from a few feet away, sitting in the living room with the television playing. My heart held only quiet.
And then the phone rang. I listened as my sister-in-law, Nick’s mother, sobbed and told me to call his father, my brother Mark. She had no heart for the news that I would hear; news that a friend had discovered our little brother’s body alone under a tree on land in St. Charles County. Life had drifted from him, stolen by his demons wielding a gun that they’d urged him to load.
I don’t know the exact day that my brother died. His gravestone bears the awful date on which he had been found. I mourn him for the days leading to it, and the few days around the time that we buried him. For the other eleven months, I hold him as a pleasant thought. I recall his radiant smile, his skipping walk, his snapping fingers. I remember my son’s name for him, the black-shirt uncle, for the outfit that Steve wore on our last Christmas visit. The uncle that gave me the alien catcher, he would say. When someone asked my son if he knew who was born on Christmas Day, he’d assure them that he did: Uncle Stephen, who I’m named after. Stephen Patrick Corley.
His death shredded my heart as no other loss has ever done, not since, not before. It took a decade for me to remember some of the laughter that we shared without weeping. Another ten years would pass before I stopped pining for a few hours with him, or a chance to try to bake a German chocolate cake on December 25th. When I moved to California, I found one of his letters neatly folded and fittingly slipped between two pages of my copy of Stranger In A Strange Land. I studied the still familiar spidery cursive, the remembered standard closing: Your friend and mine, Stevie Pat. In it, he talked of despairing in ways that I did not recall from the era in which he wrote the letter, but I guess I just ignored the huge red flags that he waved in my face.
Because of my brother’s death, I stop myself if I hear exasperation pushing me to use phrases such as I’ve had enough. I’ve only been truly suicidal once, and I recognized that my desperation arose not from untreated mental health issues but from my inability to manage enormous emotions surrounding failure. A few times since then, I’ve found myself standing in my little dwelling, wondering if I really could persevere. Once I said so to one of my siblings, who reminded me of the terrible pain of losing a sibling. She asked me if I really felt that way, and I realized that I did not. Since then, I’ve watched my rhetoric.
My brother tried to kill himself at least once before he succeeded. Awaking from his failed effort, he realized that he needed medical attention and called 911. When I confronted him with that seeming contradiction, he gave me the side-eye as only he could. He leaned over his drink at the bar, lit a cigarette, and softly responded. I wanted my pain to end, not to worsen.
I try not to dwell on the absence of my brother. But I remember him. I recall walking through a shopping center with him during winter break in my first year of law school. He had just gotten divorced and had no one for whom to buy gifts that holiday season. He bought himself some fancy socks and paid for a posh lunch that we both enjoyed. He carried my bags and counseled me on what everybody might like, as though it had been years since I left home instead of just months. We sat at a table overlooking the crowds of shoppers. He told me stories that made me laugh so hard my sides ached. He could do that, sometimes with the merest of glances.
I think of June as Steve’s month, more than December even. I don’t remember the day he was born; I was only four at the time. But I remember the day I found out that he had died; and I cannot forget the day we buried him. Both were in June. I do like June, though. The birds flock to the feeder in my little yard. The sweet air drifts through the open window. I hear my neighbors calling to each other, maybe across the meadow, maybe from lot to lot. I can’t see the river from here, but it’s up there, beyond the levee, eternally drifting toward the endless expanse of the Pacific.
I think my brother would like it here. I imagine him sitting under the big willow behind my house, cigarettes lying forgotten on the grass, ice cubes drifting in the cold liquor he’s poured in a crystal tumbler. He’d lean against the tall trunk of the sheltering tree and close his eyes. Maybe he’d sleep. Hopefully, he would rest. Nothing would hurt him ever again.
It’s the sixth day of the one-hundred and fourteenth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
In Memory – Fare Thee Well – I Love You More Than Words Can Tell
Stephen Patrick Corley
25 December 1959 – 14 June 1997
Dusk In June, by Sara Teasdale
In a chorus of shimmering sound
Are easing their hearts of joy
For miles around.The air is blue and sweet,
The few first stars are white,—
Oh let me like the birds
Sing before night.
June Night, by Sara Teasdale
How can I sleep while all around
Floats rainy fragrance and the far
Deep voice of the ocean that talks to the ground?
Oh Earth, you gave me all I have,
I love you, I love you,—oh what have I
That I can give you in return—
Except my body after I die?
What Is So Rare As A Day In June, by James Russell Lowell
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays;
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, groping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there’s never a leaf nor a blade too mean
To be some happy creature’s palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o’errun
With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer,
Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;
Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it,
We are happy now because God wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
‘Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;
We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
We may shut our eyes but we cannot help knowing
That skies are clear and grass is growing;
The breeze comes whispering in our ear,
That dandelions are blossoming near,
That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
That the river is bluer than the sky,
That the robin is plastering his house hard by;
And if the breeze kept the good news back,
For our couriers we should not lack;
We could guess it all by yon heifer’s lowing,
And hark! How clear bold chanticleer,
Warmed with the new wine of the year,
Tells all in his lusty crowing!Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how;
Everything is happy now,
Everything is upward striving;
‘Tis as easy now for the heart to be true
As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,
‘Tis for the natural way of living:
Who knows whither the clouds have fled?
In the unscarred heaven they leave not wake,
And the eyes forget the tears they have shed,
The heart forgets its sorrow and ache;
The soul partakes the season’s youth,
And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe
Lie deep ‘neath a silence pure and smooth,
Like burnt-out craters healed with snow.